Tag Archives: Matveev

Covid field tales – Part Two: Unmasking State Capitalism or Capitalist Realism?

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A pharmacy in Omsk with the sign ‘We have no masks or antiseptic gel in stock’.

This is the second of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. There will be 3-4 texts  on different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These will be based on one long text that will appear shortly in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are open access –  so please check it out. Space in those dispatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

The last post chronicled the rise of Moscow as the focal point of the disease and its spread in Russia, not we move on to how City Hall has dealt with lock down and in particular what this reveals about ‘State Capitalism’.

To avoid an official ‘state of emergency’ which would have meant taking on a massive financial burden, City Hall adopted various heuristics to manage quarantine. From March 5, the Moscow had a high-alert mode, from the 26th – self-isolation for those 65+, from the 30thself-isolation for all. The delegation of responsibility for their own health and well-being to citizens, after recent restrictions on freedoms, looked neoliberal. At the same time, the scope of quarantine education addressed to ignorant citizens and belief in its effectiveness, suggested the return of Soviet sanitary propaganda (Shok, Beliakova, 2020). In conditions of lockdown uncertainty, the boundaries of self-isolation were delineated by rituals of taking out garbage, buying food and medicine, dog walking. From April 1, fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles were imposed for each violation. On April 15, quarantine met the control society with digital codes for trips around the city. Since May 12, wearing masks and gloves became mandatory in stores.

When the president empowered regions as responsible for fighting the disease, and the prime minister asked the Moscow mayor “organizationally and methodically” to help colleagues “on the ground”, Sobyanin became the face of the ”virus federalism” and the capital’s protocol “counteracting the spread of coronavirus infection” became a model to follow.

Unmasking state capitalism or capitalist realism?

While the self-isolation regime is gone, the ”glove-mask system” remains. Entering public transport or shops without PPE is prohibited – although it looks like the mask requirement will soon be dropped.  Disposable masks – medical blue, three-layered – are found far beyond pharmacies: at newspaper stands, at the ice cream kiosks, in cheap and expensive grocery chains. At the reopened farmfoods store, half-empty due to supply disruptions, masks are at a discount. In May, they cost from 29 to 70 rubles, in March-April – up to an exorbitant 150 and you could buy them only on the Internet from resellers, thirty-times more expensive than in 2019. Prices began to rise in February. At the peak, the government tried to mandate them, but immediately abandoned this measure. The rhythm of the pandemic in Moscow was not only the appearance or absence of masks, but their price in(de)flation.

In the Russia that imported the bulk of masks from China before Covid-19 there were three domestic manufacturers. City Hall not only took ownership of the largest factory but removed its facilities from the city of Vladimir to the capital, turning the pandemic into a “Moscow state business”. Two thirds of masks from the Moscow government (about 4 million items a week) were sold at cost to hospitals and communal services, 500,000 – for a “standardised price” of 30 rubles in the metro. The rest were put into a city administration reserve.

Compared to the free distribution of mask not only in the Paris metro, but on buses in Russia’s Far East, Moscow’s choices provoked discussion of the political economy of PPE. Vladimirites were disgusted by the capital’s betrayal leaving them not only without protection, but one profitable business less. Their objections to internal colonialism were tempered with racist suggestions that the masks from Moscow – now produced by “immigrants from disadvantaged countries of the near abroad” – were now “less hygienic”. Muscovites discussed the superprofit extracted by City Hall, and supposed that “since they bought the plant, the mask-regime will never end.” Stuck between epidemiological citizenship and city-state paternalism, they claimed that the government had no moral right to demand wearing masks without free distribution. Citizens made a hopeless diagnosis – “it’s all capitalism and they don’t give a shit” – and continued to buy masks.

The nature of state-capital conjunctions in the Russian capital has long been a bone of contention. The question of who can sell masks and gloves and who profits from their production is at the heart of thinking about the paradox of Russia’s political economy Ilya Matveev calls ‘dirigisme and neoliberalism at the same time’ to financially benefit insiders. Matveev has been criticised for this argument – with the riposte mainly about the piecemeal nature of actual liberalising reform since 2000. However in many ways that critique (from 2016) was misplaced, and I think the virus response illustrates Matveev’s view well – state capture by interests does not exclude the market ‘for thee, but not for me’. 

Appropriating profitable PPE businesses, strategically significant in an epidemic, City Hall enters the order of state capitalism. Obliging citizens to wear masks and offering them at commercial prices, they interpret civic responsibility in a neoliberal mode as a personal transaction according to the logic of capitalist realism that anathemizes any alternative to marketised relations (Fisher 2009).

Nonetheless the virus’ acceleration of neoliberalism does not completely destroy the legacy of the Soviet social state, instead weakening and transforming it beyond recognition. By sending masks to hospitals at cost price, Moscow combines the logic of minimal profitability and sluggish paternalism. Opting to create a reserve fund instead of free distribution of masks, it reproduces a pattern of deformed care without expenditure, developed by the federal government via the Russian Reserve Fund. State capital accumulation has a perverse obsession with curtailing the circulation – of money, of civic potential, – we call this the political economy of “the untouchable reserve”.

Emergency Reserve

‘Emergency reserve’. The untouchable reserve relates more to a strategic reserve of collected stock for emergency use.

In the next post we will discuss ‘disinfection’ and the ‘smart city’.

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.

 

In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for Ridl.io

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.